This is my contribution to a piece by Martin Doyle with tributes from John Kelly, Sara Baume, Peter Murphy, Evelyn Conlon and more. For all writers’ contributions, please click this link.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties, a decade into the study of Tibetan Buddhism, that I began to listen to the music of Leonard Cohen. A beautiful Chinese artist friend would have no other soundtrack as she painted. She said he transported her to a richer place than the blank, cold studio she was working in. I only began to hear Cohen with her, then after she moved away I heard him more clearly by myself on a Buddhist retreat in Vermont. Along pathways between pinewood trees and incensed shrine rooms, I played him constantly – in defiance of the strict rules of the monastery (no “entertainment”). The experience was intensified by my fascination at Cohen himself having just retreated from the craziness of the music business to a Zen monastery in California.
Such respite from the turbulence and uncertainty of daily living in today’s world is always ephemeral. Even Cohen came back into the spotlight when he began to tour again in recent years. But his music is, in a way, is like a retreat. It takes you out of the fray and into aural balm and wit and darkness that even while dark, is calming and sensual.
At the moment, there are quite a few of us on the planet desirous of retreat. He beat us to it; right in the midst of the worst fray of recent history. Today all day I listened to his music again, revisiting pinewoods and places of refuge. There could hardly be a more apt moment to head home. Thinking that maybe his death will ripple a little calm through the horror and confusion. Let people take time to reflect on a human who inspired others, whose music and words soothed and brought solace in times when no other music could be listened to. Who celebrated love and gentleness but who was never sentimental and didn’t indulge delusion. Thinking that if the universe is so disposed today, let it somehow grant, in the words of a Buddhist prayer he may have known in his Dharma years, “that confusion may dawn as wisdom”.
But then again, this was a poet who told us he had seen the future and that it is murder. And he may be right.
– Helena Mulkerns
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